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Decriminalizing Addiction

Updated on September 3, 2013

Amanda Birdsall Jan. 17, 2011

In 1920, the 18th amendment to the constitution prohibited the use, distribution, sale, and manufacture of alcohol in the United States. The purpose of this law was to “reduce crime and corruption, solve social problems, reduce the tax burden created by prisons and poor houses, and improve health and hygiene in America” (Thornton, p. 1). As we all know, the prohibition of alcohol had the opposite effect. “Alcohol became more dangerous to consume; crime burgeoned and became ‘organized’; the court and prison systems were stretched to the breaking point; and corruption of public officials was rampant (Thornton, p. 1). In 1933, this law was repealed because it was a complete failure. Much like the prohibition of alcohol, the war on drugs has no hope of succeeding. Our nation’s current drug policy is an ineffective waste of tax revenue.

One of the most common arguments against ending the drug war and legalizing marijuana is that it would make it easier for our children to get drugs. This is a completely irrelevant argument for two reasons. First, even with our current laws, marijuana (as well as many other drugs, including prescription medications) is available to any child, in any town in the United States. All a child has to do to get their hands on a drug is to ask the right (or wrong) person, and have the money to pay for it. Some drug dealers will give them the drugs for free in the hopes that the child will become addicted and do anything to get more drugs. This fact brings our second argument to light. If marijuana were legalized, the distribution could then be controlled by the government in the same way that alcohol and tobacco are. Legalization would make it more difficult for children to get drugs, because they would have to convince an adult to buy for them.

Another argument against decriminalization of drugs is that it would lead to more violence and more drug use. The simple fact is that “the violence tied to the drug trade […] is a result of the black market” (Tucker, paragraph 9). Prohibition of drugs has had no effect on the availability of illicit substances. “Availability is higher and costs are lower than 20 years ago, while prevalence rates have been relatively flat” (Husak, p. 504). Drug use does not depend upon legality, it depends on availability. If a person wants to use a drug and that drug is available, which thanks to the black market it is, they will use it whether or not it happens to be illegal.

The American public is working to reform drug policy at the state level. 15 states and the District of Columbia have already voted to legalize marijuana for medicinal use. “Some patients with chronic pain use marijuana to magnify the effect of painkillers, which allows them to use less of those drugs and reduce the risks of addiction and digestive problems, says Michael Krawitz” (Dorrell, paragraph 11). “Historically marijuana’s medical use has been well-documented […] ‘the accumulated data indicate a potential therapeutic value for cannabinoid drugs, particularly for symptoms such as pain relief, control of nausea and vomiting, and appetite stimulation” (Debondt, p. 2).

One of the biggest problems caused by the war on drugs is the overcrowding in our prison systems due to mandatory minimum sentencing. “2.3 million Americans are in prison today […] up from 500,000 in 1980. Seven million Americans are now in the criminal justice system – incarcerated, on probation or on parole […] Most of the increases are due to the prosecution of drug abusers starting in the 80’s” (Weiner & Baille, paragraph 1&2). Incarceration does not stop a drug user from using drugs once they are released. “The majority of these offenders return to their former communities and their old way of life. This in turn leads to recidivism, thus further contributing to the problem of overcrowding” (Baker, paragraph 4).

Considering the fact that incarceration has little or no lasting effect on drug use, why are wasting our tax dollars? “We pay $25,000 a year to incarcerate someone, treatment costs a few thousand for an entire year, and many can stop after a few months as long as they have monitored counseling in prison and when they leave” (Weiner& Baille, p. 2). Even though treatment costs so little, very few of our inmates receive it. “Despite the fact that 68 % of arrestees test positive for drugs, only 14% of prisoners receive treatment” (Weiner& Baille, paragraph 3).

We need to change our drug policies. This country cannot afford to throw money at the drug problem instead of solving it. “According to a UCLA study, for every dollar invested in treatment, taxpayers save $7 in reduced crime and other benefits” (Weiner & Baille, paragraph 15). Why then, are we sending people to jail, when treatment would better solve the problem? Other countries have successfully changed their drug policies. “Under the Portuguese plan, penalties for people caught dealing and trafficking drugs are unchanged; dealers are still jailed and subjected to fines depending on the crime” (Vastag, paragraph 4) “Five years after personal possession was decriminalized, illegal drug use among teens in Portugal declined and rates of new HIV infections caused by sharing needles dropped, while the number of people seeking treatment for drug addiction more than doubled” (Szalavitz, paragraph 4). These results show that decriminalization can work.

Prohibition of drugs, much like that of alcohol in the 1920’s, has had many negative effects. Drug cartels are rampant, street gangs fought turf wars for distribution rights, jails are overcrowded, and the national deficit is out of control. “Counting federal, state, and local funds, the United States spends $45 billion a year to enforce drug prohibition” (Tucker, paragraph 6). That seems like an awful lot of money for a policy that has had no effect on the prevalence of drug use.


Baker, S. (n.d.). Overcrowder prisons: Analysis and solutions. Helium. Retrieved January17, 2011, from

Debont, E. (March 2006). Historical and regulatory issues of medical marijuana. Oncology Nursing Forum, 33(2), 440. Abstract retrieved January 17, 2011, from EBSCO Host.

Dorell, O. (Nov. 9, 2010). Trapped between state and nation; Conflicting laws can spell trouble for patients using medical marijuana. USA today. Retrieved December 20, 2010, from Proquest database.

Husak, D. (Sep. 2003). Review: The Criminalization of Drug Use. Sociological Forum, 18(3). 503-513. Retrieved December 20, 2010, from JSTOR archive.

Thornton, M. (n.d). Prohibition’s failure: Lessons for today. USA Today Archives. Retrieved January 17, 2011, from Proquest Database.

Tucker, C. (Oct. 31, 2010). Ending reefer madness. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Retrieved December 20, 2010, from ProQuest database.

Szalavitz, M. (Apr. 26, 2009). Drugs in Portugal; Did decriminalization work?. Time Retrieved January 17, 2011, from http;//,8816,1893946,00.html


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    • Lilliana Delanor profile image

      Lilliana Delanor 6 years ago from Michigan, USA

      We need real change in this country, or we're going to destroy ourselves.

    • rockdresses profile image

      rockdresses 6 years ago from Turkey

      Thanks a lot for your brilliant sharing! It is really awesome!